David Griffith considers how an Owner should respond when the public raise Guide Dog issues on our behalf.
Recently a highly publicized video of an aggressive commuter on a London Tube escalator, frustrated at his inability to shove past a Guide dog, showed him receiving condemnation from fellow passengers. I don’t know if this video has raised awareness but I have twice in the last week received similar unsolicited support from members of the public.
Today a row broke out in my local shop. Interestingly this occurred because the shop owner and his assistant, both Turkish Muslims, were determined to defend my guide Dog. If nothing else it demonstrates how inaccurate and unhelpful the stereotypical assumption is that all Muslims have negative attitudes towards Guide Dogs. Nyle guided me into the shop as usual but apparently a customer attempted to move Nyle away by kneeing him. Actually although I did feel Nyle move slightly I was oblivious to any actual contact. The chances are then that the action of this customer was not particularly violent. Nevertheless first of all the Shop Assistant and then the Shop Owner reprimanded the customer for doing this. They pointed out that my dog was a Guide dog and only trying to do his job. I think in the early years of my partnership with Nyle they were uncertain about Nyle’s status but they were clearly converts by now, having watched how essential he is to me.
The customer was embarrassed. She responded by denying that she had done anything. She became increasingly aggressive and noisy as the shop workers did not accept her account. Nyle actually became a little nervous at the kerfuffle and certainly needed a cuddle and reassurance on our returned home.
I was unsure of how to respond to the argument which had no input from me. I tried to make mollifying noises. After the customer stormed out of the shop I decided my best response was simply to express gratitude to the shop keeper and his assistant. They pressed my hand supportively when I received my change so I hope it was all OK.
This was the second time in a week that members of the Public had sprung, to our defence.
A few days ago Nyle guided me from a train to the ticket barriers at London Liverpool Street Station. I called out for Staff Assistance as normal. As I did not get any response, a passenger asked if they could help. I asked if they could bring our presence to the attention of staff. To cut a long story short it appeared that 4 members of staff were watching us but making no attempt to approach or assist. They were apparently keeping their distance despite my calling for help. I had heard from underground Staff that there were some issues with some overground rail staff “scared of Guide Dogs”. This possibly under lied what ostensibly seemed very unhelpful behaviour. The problem was, however, that this odd behaviour started to seriously annoy members of the public. One passenger said he could not believe it and asked if I had to put up with this all the time. Pretty soon I heard several passengers confronting the Overground staff and demanding that they assist. I heard the staff in turn protesting that the passengers should stop shouting at them. Eventually a more helpful member of staff arrived so the situation did not deteriorate further.
A few months ago a taxi driver was reluctant to pick up my guide Dog. I started to discuss this but then a neighbour intervened angrily on my behalf. After a few minutes I actually got a call from the cab office asking me to stop this person attacking the cab. The cab office said that the Driver claimed the neighbour was kicking the car. I certainly did not hear any kicking and this was probably an exaggeration by the Driver in a desperate attempt to achieve some higher moral ground. I have not met this neighbour before or since but the Cab Driver did eventually agree to pick up Nyle and myself, though I have had more relaxing cab journeys.
Over the years I have had to adopt strategies to deal with access denials or cope with people with difficult attitudes. The taking up of issues by others on our behalf twice over the last week has reminded me that I have never really thought through strategies for dealing with unsolicited advocacy. I am not aware of any guidance from Guide Dogs on this either.
Clearly, on the one hand, it is very positive that members of the public feel that they should support and defend our legal rights. On the other hand it does feel strange if a conflict erupts in our defence in which we have limited or no control.
How should I respond? Should I try to keep matters calm? Should I weigh in enthusiastically in support of those trying to assist us?
The first calming approach risks undermining and disappointing people trying to support us. The second, more supportive approach, risk escalating the conflict by adding the fuel of personal emotional heat.
Despite this risk of escalation my instinct is that simply standing by is not desirable, and if at all possible you need to try and assert some kind of control. This is not always simple or even possible. In the Liverpool Street example the relevant staff did not approach me closely enough for me to engage at all.
Despite this I feel that efforts at engagement and control are more desirable than simply adopting a victim status. In the end your input and knowledge as a Guide Dog Owner may be critical. If the Access denial is serious the best support members of the public can provide is to act as witnesses. They can provide important support by witnessing the access denial and, just as importantly, help record and identify the illegal perpetrators. This could be by taking names, photos, or recording staff and vehicle registration numbers. Finally they can provide contact details to provide future witness testimony. This requirement may not be at all obvious to members of the public caught in the heat of the moment. Such a pragmatic evidence gathering approach can at the same time help calm an issue whilst reassuring supportive members of the public that we are grateful for their genuine assistance. This evidence base approach could hopefully redirect heat into a calmer process, if necessary judicial process, where these issues are best resolved.
Of course a judgement has to be made on a case by case basis. In some cases, as with my local shop keepers, simply expressing gratitude is probably the best approach. There was certainly no access denial involved.
It is likely that only approaches rather than hard and fast rules apply in managing these situations. Nevertheless I am very interested to hear from others both of their experiences and what strategies they adopt.